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from issue no. 04 - 2009

BUENOS AIRES. The priests, the narcos, the threats

“They are priests who pray and work”

The drug traffickers threatened the parish priest of a villa miseria, stirring a wave of popular sympathy. An interview with Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio

Interview with Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio by Gianni Valente

Sometimes he also encounters them, the poor slaves of paco, maybe on Sunday when he arrives on foot in the maze of some villa miseria, to say Mass, baptize and confirm, to celebrate the patron saint. They see the white collar in the distance, realize that it’s a priest, and then the calls go up: “Hola padre, tienes un peso para la coca?”. For Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit, cardinal and archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998, it is the confirmation that in those parts “they tell the truth”. Also when they want to leave the dark background of their disastrous lives. So everything is fine, but let no one try to touch his priest friends of Baires. Those who speak to him informally of the miracles that the Lord performs down their way. It was him, Father Bergoglio, who made public the death threats brought to the priests from those whom he calls “los mercaderes de las tinieblas”, the merchants of darkness.

Cardinal Bergoglio during the processione of the Madonna del Carmine, in Ciudad oculta, the <I>villa miseria</I> in the Mataderos district (Buenos Aires)

Cardinal Bergoglio during the processione of the Madonna del Carmine, in Ciudad oculta, the villa miseria in the Mataderos district (Buenos Aires)

Why did you decide to let everyone know that a priest had been threatened by the drug traffickers?
JORGE MARIO BERGOGLIO: The decision was taken in prayer. I felt that this was a problem of the whole local Church. And all the faithful should know. I mentioned it in a sermon during the Mass said for workers in schools and educational activities, in which I also spoke of the dangers for the young people of today, such as drugs. At the end, I just added that a priest had been threatened, without even speaking his name.
Those who have had the luck to meet Father Pepe and the priests who work with him know that they are also prudent and realistic. They’re not hamming the part of “frontier priests”, or “anti-drug professionals”. What has changed? Why were they threatened?
BERGOGLIO: They work. They’re not attacking anyone. The one who said that drugs are a danger, not just in the favelas, but throughout the city, was myself at that Mass. I told parents to watch what their children do, to take care of them, because drugs reach everywhere, come to the school gate. They, the priests of the villas, are also working in preventing drug addiction and the social rehabilitation of young drug addicts. A month ago they drafted a constructive proposal on the startling growth of drug trafficking. The people of Villa 21 have recently opened three shelters for young addicts. It must be that the traffickers don’t like that. Someone must have got annoyed.
It’s well known that you are attached to the priests who work in the villas miserias and poor neighborhoods.
BERGOGLIO: They work and pray. There are priests who pray. And they do catechesis, social work... That’s what I like. This priest who was threatened, they say, and it is true, has a special devotion for Don Bosco. It is precisely the style of Don Bosco that inspires him.
How has the rest of the diocese reacted? Jealousies?
BERGOGLIO: Not at all. More than four hundred priests in Buenos Aires signed a declaration in favor of their brothers, and presented it at a press conference in the bishop’s residence. An initiative that they took themselves, not something inspired by the bishops. They saw the matter as an example of apostolic work.
Your concern for pastoral work in the poor districts and the villas has become a reference point for the whole diocese.
BERGOGLIO: Yes, and they are happy about it. The company and the government have responded well in backing Pepe.
Maybe there are people who would have preferred these problems to be hidden since there’s also the question of the connivance and inaction of politicians.
BERGOGLIO: Greater responsiveness to this problem emerged in the Church some time ago. Last year the bishops’ conference made a statement. Another came from the Social Pastoral Commission. Then Bishop Jorge Casaretto, a member of the Comisión Nacional de Justicia y paz, conducted an enquiry and has spoken several times on the subject. Finally came this document from the priests of the villas, with the resultant threat, which caught everybody’s attention. All this to make clear that the document was not an isolated statement, but is in line with the course taken by the whole Church in Argentina, to say to everybody: watch out, this is a danger.
But does the Church have the fight against drugs as its main task?
BERGOGLIO: Not at all. It’s a pastoral thing. Pastoral work. To ask for the conversion of all. Even traffickers.

Father José María “Pepe” Di Paola greets the two thousand faithful who rushed to show him affection and solidarity, at the end of the mass celebrated by the auxiliary bishop 
of Buenos Aires Óscar Ojea a Nuestra Señora de Caacupé, on 26 April 2009  [© La Nacion]

Father José María “Pepe” Di Paola greets the two thousand faithful who rushed to show him affection and solidarity, at the end of the mass celebrated by the auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires Óscar Ojea a Nuestra Señora de Caacupé, on 26 April 2009 [© La Nacion]

Father Pepe has many friends
The nasty event occurred in the evening, at the end of April. Father Pepe was coming back home on his bicycle. The one with the Huracán stickers, the team that always gets through by the skin of its teeth, and indeed the other priests of Nuestra Señora de Caacupé make fun of him (they follow River or Boca Juniors, good goers). At a certain moment, a man beckoned him to stop. “Are you Father Pepe?”, he asked. He had never seen him. He spoke with a porteño accent, was dressed well. He was not a cabeçita and the poor provinces to the north of the country – had written and distributed a document telling everyone that in their neighborhoods drug trafficking was “de facto decriminalized”, that the narcos were transforming those slums full of poor and helpless people into helpless, off-limits areas, no man’s land where to peddle their surplus production of cocaine. A “Brazilian” crime wave, which is seeing the number of dead and wounded growing from month to month, daily felonies and cruelty.
It wasn’t that Pepe and his friends had got a sudden urge to turn into heroes. The fact was that they happened to be priests there, in the villas, among the misshapen and afflicted lives of those alleys, in the midst of those fragile and wounded people who have so often seen hope blossom, like a flower on the edge of the pit. They had seen how the Lord did great things among the multitude of their powerless and destitute friends, He, who always prefers the humble to the arrogant. Thus, every attempt to try to protect those poor beloved of the Lord always comes like a conditioned reflex, like an instinctive move. From generation to generation.
In the ’sixties and ’seventies, the first priests who opened chapels and parishes in the villas not least in support of the villeros’ fight for justice and to show them how to work for social improvement, found fresh commitment in the encounter with the simple faith and devotion of those whom they had generously gone to educate and help. They – Rodolfo Ricciardelli, Carlos Mugica, Jorge Vernazza and all the other “pioneers” close to the movement of the sacerdotes para el tercer mundo – had had to hold their helpless arms wide to block the bulldozers sent several times by the military regimes to flatten the shacks of the villeros.
Now what was making their days tormented were no longer the topadoras sent by the military to limpiar la ciudad, to rid Buenos Aires of those who, according to them “did not deserve” to live there. For several years now the monster has been viler and more devastating. It burns out brains, dims eyes, cankers the hearts of young people, teenagers, children. They call it el paco, or pasta base de cocaina (PBC). It’s made with the chemical residue of the processing of the white powder. The quality stuff is sent to Europe and the US. The “normal” stuff is for the good neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. In 2001, the year of the economic collapse in Argentina, they discovered that the waste product could make money as mass commodity in the villas. One dose costs less than a dollar and a half, indeed they give away the first ones. It turns people on more than marijuana, but the effect is very short-lived and people want it again immediately. Just one day is enough to become adicto. The state of anxiety that follows every smoke is unbearable, abstinence is a nightmare of paranoia and hallucination. The need to find money to buy another dose makes people crazy. In just a few days normal children and adolescents become zombies voracious for a dose, to the point of killing those they come across for a few peso without even realizing it. They call them the muertos vivos, the living dead. They forget to eat. They spend entire weeks without sleep. They wander aimlessly, with dead eyes, or slump on sidewalks, lips burned by the homemade tin pipes they use to smoke.
Father Pepe [© La Nacion]

Father Pepe [© La Nacion]

Pepe also came across them in the more secluded corners of the villa. Some of those in his barrio had known them since they were little kids. Maybe they would greet him, ask for a rosary and a bit of money. And Pepe would reply that he didn’t have anything at that moment, but if they’d come by the church, he could do something. He had too many things to do already. Since he’d arrived in Caacupé twelve years ago, with the help of the Virgin and the saints – St Expedito, St Pantaleo, St Cayetano and all the others – a surprisingly exuberant Christian life had grown around the network of chapels of the parish: Masses of healing and popular canteens, rosaries and professional schools, pilgrimages and sewing classes, camping in Bariloche and spiritual retreats for couples, doctors’ surgeries and nights to prepare the fire for the asado. There are those who would have paused to gaze in self-content on these small and large victories in the marginal intricacy of the villa, shaking their heads at the fate of drogacitos. Accepting it as if it were just part of the evil of the times. But Pepe and his friends could not. Unable not to bet that the contagion of that improved life they saw spreading in the villa would reach even them, the most damned. Nor could they keep their mouths closed about the abyss in which so many were getting lost.
In 2008, seeing that the kids almost always failed in their attempts at detoxifying in the city help centers, they tried to set up an ad hoc rescue project, structured in three stages, all of them woven into the network of social relations of the villa. Father Charly and misionero Gustavo handled it, with the help of the whole community. The men of the parish offered dozens of weekends of trabajo solidario to build up the farm on the road to Luján, where the second stage on the path of recovery takes place: a few months of retreat, with paced rhythms of work and rest, away from the city. But the path starts at the Hogar de Cristo, the day center opened on the outskirts of Villa 21: a few rooms, the kitchen, the soccer field. The street children, whom they called the niños de Belén, the children of Bethlehem, also go there to eat, to wash and to see movies with pretty good heroes. It is there that some of the paco addicts begins to look in to see whether there is anyone who could rid them of the darkness in their lives. The symbol of the Hogar is a cross planted so as to break a chain. A bit naive, but it meant that nobody can save themselves alone, without the help of Jesus. One can’t do without it, it’s necessary as the bread baked at the school for cooks in Pepirí street that then goes to the comedores to feed the children of the villa. One person well aware of it is Miriam, the beautiful girl who two years earlier was sleeping tossed like a rag between the waste containers, whose two children had been taken away from her and who spent her days and nights getting money for paco in any way she could. “I didn’t think there was any rescue for me. But I was always bumping into the curate in the calle and he’d say: Dios te ama”. Now she’s also a catechism teacher, she wants to become a therapist for the drug addicts who want to come off, and she wants to see her girls again, “but not yet, only when I’m stronger”. Also well aware of it is Raúl, who once managed to stop, but then lapsed (“I felt una mierda. A year of effort, and within a few hours everything collapsed again”) and who for some months now has been attending the Hogar, taking the course in electrics and carpentry at the Pepirí school, and who realizes in some confused way that something is changing. Charly and Gustavo know many stories like this. Failures and re-starts. Outsets derailed and rebegun. Lives saved hand over hand. The muertos vivos returning to life. What miracle is there greater than this? It leaves hope open even to those who sell drugs, and would seem unredeemable. The smalltime drug dealers of the villa, maybe believing they’re just doing a job like any other, just to find the gana for their family, and not even aware of the evil they do, greet Charly or Pepe when they pass along the street.
The <I>muraleros</I> of the parish of Nuestra Señora de Caacupé at Villa 21 repaint the mural that portrays Father Daniel de la Sierra, the first pastor of the <I>villa</I>

The muraleros of the parish of Nuestra Señora de Caacupé at Villa 21 repaint the mural that portrays Father Daniel de la Sierra, the first pastor of the villa

The Church, Bergoglio always says, is not a place just for good people. The cardinal of Buenos Aires reiterated in his sermon on the feast day of San Cayetano: “Are people driven out of here because they are bad? No, on the contrary, they are welcomed with more affection. That is what Jesus has taught us”. When the cardinal wants to be heartened he often goes to hear about the victories of Jesus to be seen in the villas. On Maundy Thursday in 2008, at the mass of in Coena Domini, he went to wash the feet of twelve boys who attend the Hogar de Cristo. That day they were the apostles. Initially the only money for the

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